Lag B’Omer is the 33rd day of the Omer. It is a day of rejoicing because on this day a plague lifted from the students of Rabbi Akiva, and they stopped dying. It also corresponds with the date of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the greatest sages of the Mishna. We don’t usually rejoice when a great sage dies, but this death was different.
In a commentary in Torah it is written that on the day Rabbi Shimon passed away, a great light of endless joy filled the day. The happiness on that day was to him and his students “like that of a groom while standing under the canopy at his wedding.” On that day, legend says that the sun would not set until Rabbi Shimon had revealed all the hidden wisdom that he was permitted to.
In Israel, people flock to the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the city of Meron on this day. There is dancing, singing, and bonfires. There is also a custom that children play with bows and arrows, “bow” relating to “rainbow,” because it is said that in all the days of Rabbi Yochai’s life, a rainbow was never seen, because Rabbi Yochai himself was the sign of the rainbow.
An omer is a measure of barley. In Biblical times, on the second day of Passover, it was a commandment to bring barley to the Temple as an offering. Then, fifty days later, on Shavuot, it was a commandment to bring the first offering of the new wheat harvest.
There are seven weeks (49 days) between the second day of Passover, when the barley offering was brought to the Temple, and Shavuot, the wheat harvest. The period of these seven weeks is called the counting of the Omer. It is actually a Biblical commandment to count every day of the Omer. On day one, you say, this is day one of the Omer, and so on for forty-nine days.
Some say it has to do with the barley harvest. Some say it is because there was no fixed calendar so counting was the only way to be sure of when Shavuot is. Some say that it has to do with linking Passover with Shavuot. While Passover commemorates our liberation from slavery to Pharaoh, the Israelites were not truly free until they received the Torah. Some say further that we count the Omer just like we would count the minutes to reuniting with someone we love. From the minute we leave Egypt, we are counting the days, hours, minutes to our meeting with God at Sinai on Shavuot.
The Omer is also a mourning period during which people traditionally do not marry, shave, listen to music, or cut their hair. This is very difficult when April is such a primo wedding month! Couples are always inquiring about this rule which most Reform rabbis do not observe. It is a mourning period because a plague killed 24,000 of the great Rabbi Akiva’s students, the Bar Kochba revolt failed against the Romans, and over the centuries, the people experienced massacres and pogroms and tragedies during this time.
On the 33rd day of the Omer, Lag B’Omer, we stop mourning for the day because the plague lifted and Rabbi Yochai revealed the light of Torah to his students on this, his death day.
Well, you can shave and cut your hair, attend a wedding and listen to music, if you’ve been absolving from these things. You can have a fun bonfire, symbolic of the “light of Torah” Rabbi Yochai revealed. Have a barbecue. You can play with bows and arrows, as symbols of the Bar Kochba revolt or the covenant of the rainbow.
Or we can just dance around and be happy, knowing there is some vague reason why we are doing this, and maybe that reason is good enough!